Oldest Vol to throw out first pitch

Marvin Westwestwords

In my world, there are always Vols and old Vols. There is a newcomer, the OLDEST Vol.

Jim Worthington, former Tennessee baseball catcher, is 98. UT sports historian Bud Ford says, until someone provides convincing contradictory evidence, Jim is the oldest letterman.

Worthington is warming up for a public appearance. He has been invited to throw out the first pitch at the May 18 Tennessee game against South Carolina at remodeled and expanded Lindsey Nelson Stadium (not yet renamed).

“My son got me a baseball. I’m practicing.”

Worthington says he might should be the receiver instead of the thrower. He isn’t sure about his control. He doesn’t have full feeling in his right hand. He has a touch of arthritis. But he sure is excited about the return to campus.

“I think I can do it.”

Think about this: Jim was born August 26, 1925, about the time the United States first heard of iodized salt, Band-Aids and Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

Yogi Berra and Johnny Carson were born in 1925. Vacuum cleaners were invented. The Grand Ole Opry was introduced on WSM radio in Nashville.

So, how did Jim Worthington, eventual resident of Sheffield, Alabama., acquire a lasting connection with the University of Tennessee?

He started growing up in Knoxville. An uncle took him at age 5 to see the football Vols play. Alas, the family moved to Alabama. That didn’t change Jim’s perspective.

He did his time in World War II, still liked the idea of Tennessee and tried to enroll. Sorry, no room, so many returning GIs caused an overflow. Admissions were limited to in-state applicants.

Jim did not accept no at face value. He pondered a next step. Someone suggested he seek an appointment with Robert R. Neyland, coach of football, former ROTC instructor, just back from his third tour of military duty. He had served in the China-Burma-India region, supervising transportation of material through monsoons and across the Himalayas to U.S. troops.

Jim was told to mention his military service, love of baseball and why he’d really like to try out as a Volunteer.

Magic words. They struck up a conversation. Jim asked good questions. Neyland told him a bit about West Point and more about his pitching performance as a cadet. He wasn’t bragging but he won 35 games, 20 in a row. He pitched a no-hitter. He set down that damned Navy team.

Neyland didn’t say much about playing football and being undefeated heavyweight boxing champion for three years. I doubt that he mentioned graduating near the top of his class, doing extra study in engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and being assigned to Douglas MacArthur’s staff. The general was the commandant at the U.S. Military Academy.

Enough of that, now what is this about being denied admission? Go back and see the registrar.

Suddenly there was one space available. Yes, as a matter of fact, Coach Neyland did call. Welcome, young man, to Tennessee.

“Playing baseball at UT in the late 1940s was a really big deal. Being remembered at 98 is big, too. I feel like I am representing all the old lettermen. At Tennessee, fans never forget.”

Worthington is a realist.

“Some of the younger folks will say ‘Look at that old man out on the field.’”

Historian Ford says statistics from Worthington’s era are sketchy. There was no team during the war. Baseball resumed in 1947. Football assistant Ike Peel was coach.

“I told Coach Peel that I was a catcher,” said Jim.

“He said good luck, that he had 18 catchers trying out for the team.”

Worthington made the squad. Neyland did not forget his young friend.

“He was really interested in baseball. He came to games. We often talked.”

Based on Bud’s numbers and Jim’s recollections, those Vols were 13-6. Kentucky and Vanderbilt were the only SEC foes. Tennessee lost home and away to Maryville College.

Cy Anderson was coach in 1948. The schedule was much tougher. The record was a discouraging 4-18-1. The 1949 Vols went 6-12. Much better days weren’t far away. Worthington was gone.

“I missed my senior season to do student teaching at Tyson Junior High. I had to have that to graduate. “

Any consideration of pro baseball?

“I wasn’t good enough.”

The famous football coach offered Worthington a scouting job after graduation. The coach seemed pleased that Jim was committed to teaching and coaching in high school. That lasted a few years. His career was as a real estate appraiser.

Worthington must share national attention with the oldest former major league player. Out in California, Art Schallock just turned 100. He was a New York Yankee. To make room for Art on the roster, that team sent a rookie back to the minors. The kid made a comeback. Maybe you’ve heard of Mickey Mantle.

Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com


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